Poet Of The Week

Shira Erlichman

     July 25–31, 2016

Shira Erlichman​ is a writer, musician and visual artist. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been featured in BuzzFeed Reader, PBS, the Offing, Massachusetts Review, BUST, Bitch Magazine and Winter Tangerine Review, among others. She was awarded the Millay Colony Residency and a James Merrill Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. As a musician she’s shared stages with TuNe-YaRdS, Mirah, and CocoRosie. Her album Subtle Creature will be released in August 2016. She resides in Brooklyn. As part of the NYC Poetry Festival on Governor’s Island, Erlichman will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series on July 31 along with Christopher Soto and Thomas Fucaloro.

Ode to Lithium #600

The side effect of Lithium (is dehydration & peeing more frequently. The side effect of dehydration & peeing more frequently is not wanting to drink water at all because you pee more frequently. The side effect of not wanting to is not doing. The side effect of not doing is a couch & three movies. The side effect of a couch & three movies is what have you been doing all day with a raised eyebrow. The side effect of a raised eyebrow is a sigh. The side effect of a sigh is plaque. The side effect of plaque is a dirt road but you’re bikeless. The side effect of bikeless is an unrelenting heartbeat with a passion for waves. The side effect of a passion for waves is dream upon dream where every object is as blue as the sea. The side effect of overwhelmingly blue dreams is a girlfriend who listens. The side effect of this particular girlfriend is black soap that sits staining the side of the tub. The side effect of stains is her name in your cheek like a cool marble. The side effect of her name is your hands pulling chicken apart into a big bowl that she is also filling & every now & then she shakes near your face a ligament so nasty you both squeal & it is good. The side effect of it is good is it is bad. The side effect of it is bad is crossing your legs in the psychiatrist’s office, talking about side effects. The side effect of side effects is living your life. The side effect of living your life is dying. The side effect of dying is being remembered. The side effect of being remembered is being held like a stone, but of course it is not a stone but a bird that too will die. The side effect of a stone that is not a stone is throwing the stone & watching it fly. The side effect of flight) is a poem.

–Originally published in Psychology Tomorrow Magazine, October 2015.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem, unlike many of my poems, came out whole in one sitting without much editing. It came from the impulse to collapse the notion of side effects. Of course taking medication means that there are side effects; but folks privileged enough to debate taking medication often neglect to remember that the side effect of not taking medication can often be death—fueled by delusion, hallucinations, distorted thinking, walking into traffic, even taking one’s own life. “Oh, but the side effects … ” I hear folks constantly use this as a reason to deny that they or a loved one should take medication. Okay. But everything has its side effects, not just pills—relationships, laziness, dreaming, an hour alone. This poem was an adventure in flipping the normal (read: ableist) conversation: should vs. shouldn’t, bad vs. good. It was an investigation into the more of living, where fullness and imperfection are prioritized.

This particular style of writing (associative and leaping) is a joy for me. I often feel like I’m cheating (at what?) because it’s so freeing. It felt very radical to end up employing the parenthesis so that the final statement could be read as “The side effect of Lithium is a poem.” This ending came about naturally, and in retrospect, was the whole thesis. (There are always) (hidden narratives). Secondly, like, “biyatch, okay, of course you don’t want to take meds, have your millions of opinions about them; but for me, the side effect of taking them is this very moment, this engagement, this creation, this remnant that proves I’m not just surviving, but wildly alive.”

What are you working on right now?

This lifetime project of 730 odes to Lithium. My new album Subtle Creature comes out on August 16th, so I’m also doing a lot of prep work for getting that out into the world! Being a present citizen and partner and sister and daughter and friend to myself, always.

What’s a good day for you?

Walking around Brooklyn for most of the day, just taking in the world around me, Coney Island, ocean ocean ocean, my girlfriend, taro bubble tea, a phone call or visit from my family, playing a show for a crowd that’s in it to win it, or going into the studio and laying something new down. Ugly dogs and mint lemonade and laughing. Creativity and the people I love. Boom.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

A palpable expiration date on the college town where I’d been living for a few years. Craving more poets in my immediate vicinity. A desire to grow musically. Also, falling in love with one of its residents.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I live on Flatbush, a minute walk from Prospect Park; an area now often referred to as Prospect Lefferts Gardens. It’s loud as hell, always poppin’. It’s primarily a West Indian and Caribbean neighborhood, tons of delis and barber shops and markets plus Pretty Girl and Dunkin Donuts. I’ve lived here for almost three years. My favorite thing is that I’m so close to the park and the Q train. I have a weirdly inflated pride for the Q. It’s my favorite child. Who else can get me to Coney Island in 30 minutes? Who else gets me straight into the city in that same flash? Also, the letter Q? Best letter, best train, sorry everyone, not sorry anyone. I’m thrilled that soon Greenlight Bookstore will be opening down the street. I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy (when I first moved to NYC) and Ditmas shortly after; they all had their particular magic. They felt more “private” than where I live now. Every time I step out of the apartment I feel like I’m stepping onto a wild set replete with a bajillion characters, smells, and that one boombox on that one crate, always there, always blasting. There’s an intensity, an always-on-ten quality to my neighborhood that I both struggle with and infinitely respect.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

I was on a fairly empty train. There was a teenage girl a foot away from me, popping gum. We didn’t interact at all, just chilling on our ride to wherever, the usual leave-me-be. In the total quiet a woman gets up, walks in front of me, and in her attempt to read the map on the wall, leans forward in an intense gymnastic move that puts her butt directly in my face. She hung in that dextrous position for a solid minute, studying the map. Like freaky magnets the teenage girl and I turned to each other with the exact same look of “whatthefffffuuu?” and burst into uncontrollable laughter. By the time the lady was gone we were crying—looking at each other, looking away, trying to compose ourselves, losing it again. When she got off at the next stop, we simultaneously tried to say “Have a good day,” but could barely get the words out. In this collision-city, we try so hard to compose ourselves as separate beings, to retain our individuality, and then something ugly or beautiful or (most likely) ridiculous unifies us and then just as quickly we disappear from one another. That sharing/abandonment is supremely New York to me.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

You know, throughout my life I’ve been supremely lucky to be consistently surrounded by poets whose work and beings have chiseled me into a better writer and person. In college it was Casey Rocheteau, Kit Wallach, Sara Brickman. In Boston it was everyone at the Wednesday night Open Mic at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. That was a space I felt entirely myself and could stretch beyond into wild new places. When I lived in Northampton and didn’t have an immediate poetry community, I found deep kin through the April 30/30 challenge when I connected with writers from all over the country online, via Facebook postings of our daily poem-experiments: Jeremy Radin, Daniel McGinn. In this regard, I think of a poetry community as folks who are invested in your risks, your obsessions, as well as your wanderings. They stay up way too late to help you edit an unwieldy piece; this isn’t even special, it’s just how it is. It’s reciprocal, passionate and hype. There is a mutual fire you’re tossing logs into, building a bigger and brighter beast together. Casey still laughs with me at some questionable, straight up terrible lines I wrote as a basically-teen and I’m so grateful to have that kind of witness.

In another way, I’ve found a writing community in the privacy of my room. Ever since I was little, my Mom was putting words in my hands: Emily Dickinson, sports narratives featuring girls, tons of inspiring and green and smart pages. She’d always sign a little inscription for me on the front inside cover, which meant this. exact. book. was. for. me. Too, that her drippy blue pen was meant to mingle with printed text. So, words were alive, a together thing. This union between writer and reader, gifter and gifted, mother and daughter, was sacred. The authors I found because of her became siblings, teammates, cheerleaders, kings, my forreal community. I remember a particular book of quotes she gave me in which writers discussed their trade, their passion. I opened that slim book and it felt like getting slapped with saltwater. I was like: These are my people. I was ten.

As for New York, the main place I have found writing community is in Angel Nafis’s workshop series, “In Real Life.” That particular crew of folks, the multidimensional content she brought, the safety and honesty in that room every Saturday morning for the last three winters has just been life-changing. At the end of every workshop we’d look around in total awe of each other, tears in our eyes, so grateful, and more ready to face the city than when we came in the door. It was temple, oceanic. A gift. Even just speaking of it now I feel a deep sense of ease, of possibility, of “thank goodness” at who is out there in this city right now, making it a more honest, tender place.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Angel Nafis, Mahogany Browne, Aracelis Girmay, Martín Espada, Ocean Vuong, Morgan Parker, Tommy Pico. Look at those voices! Can you even believe it! Can they run this gottttdannng country together already, please?!

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I’ve been having an incredible love affair with Wisława Szymborska’s work since I was 21. My friend Beau Sia put View with a Grain of Sand in my hands and I thought it looked incredibly boring and 10 years later I haven’t put it down.

Szymborska astounds me in her product, process and personhood. Giving advice about the writer’s life she said that its components should include: “persistence, diligence, wide reading, curiosity, observation, distance toward oneself, sensitivity to others, a critical mind, a sense of humor, and an abiding conviction that the world deserves a) to keep existing, and b) better luck than it’s had thus far.” I’m particularly struck by “distance toward oneself” right next to “sensitivity to others.” She takes intimacy and objectivity seriously—something that should be paradoxical, but in her care isn’t.

I’ve always thought of her as poetry’s scientist. She keeps a “cool mind” (Toni Morrison’s criteria for writing), examining life with reverent detachment—like an alien arriving in wow at this place; this allows for spiritual innovation, multiple lenses, and as a reader, it perplexingly invites me into the heart of an ant from the distance of the sun. After a decade I’m still shocked by Szymborska’s precision, unceremonious intimacy, humor and lived practice of wonder. I also consistently return to the life and work of Morrison, Rumi, Aracelis Girmay and Pablo Neruda.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I recently came across a poem of Szymborska’s that I’d never read before, “Identification,” that absolutely startled my being. It’s her usual accessible, stark tone matched with an impossibly heavy topic: being called to identify a dead beloved. The way Szymborska crafts denial (“he wouldn’t do that to me, look like that”) is so human and plain. I admire her capacity to tackle drama without drama.

As for books, I read Citizen by Claudia Rankine half a year ago but still carry it inside me. It’s funny but I didn’t realize until this very moment that it too favors stark, plain language in order to transmit trauma; it casts aside the tools of hyperbole or even metaphor. Through this question I’m realizing that there is something fatiguing about “explaining” the world, one’s experiences, a diagnosis, -isms one faces, etc. I feel called to when I witness Szymborska and Rankine not explain so much as expose.

That works in both senses of the word: to expose as in to make something visible, uncover it. But also: to leave something unprotected, like to be exposed to the elements. I like the idea of writers not seeking to explain, but opening, revealing, uncovering, laying vulnerable.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Ooof! Here comes a shame parade! Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Sula by Morrison. Really anything by Morrison that I haven’t read yet … The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Also (let’s end on a high note here) I had been meaning to read An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison for literally a decade and finally read it last month while on residency. I could not believe I’d waited so long. It was so vital and sparking and true that I threw it across the room every four pages or so.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I usually am reading one or two nonfiction books and a fiction book simultaneously. I’ve actually had to make a conscious effort to read more fiction and new poetry books because I am usually buried under nonfiction books—most pertaining to the brain, the mind-body connection, gut health, how sexy nature is, Phineas Gage and other medical miracles, spiritual and medical investigations of Selfhood, etcetera etcetera. It’s embarrassing how predictable my interests are.

I always prefer physical books. I like taking notes, underlining, folding, holding. It’s also a time travel device, a book, in the sense that when I used to get lost in a book as a kid there wasn’t the option yet of checking my cell phone or a screen of any kind. So when I make the choice to hold a book now I’m viscerally reminded of that lazy-day-feeling, reclining, book at hand, lost, loster, beautifully obliterated by immersion and solitude and inner quiet.

Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I read on the train platform, at a café before the waiter arrives, or at a bar waiting for friends to show. A book is a salve for the in-between moments. As for writing, there’s a particular café I go to that I dare not give away. I sort of velcro myself to one spot for a while. I don’t really roam, I pick a café I can pretty easily get focused in and then I consider it an office.

What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Prospect Park. I can mark how long I’ve lived in New York by when I still got lost in it and when it started to feel navigatable. DUMBO is epic and cobbled and home to the river.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate Lithium’s origin: Bolivian salt flats, endless white
     desert water
And what I swallow, two little landscapes, you could find in the
     periodic table
For every lick of impossible dust heals me as good as it confounds

Why Brooklyn?

The passion, rigor, ambition, collisions. The kinship, nearby ocean, next door river. The multiplicity in everything: cell phone store that also somehow sells hats and flowers; my friend the filmmaker slash jewelry-maker slash teacher; triple-identity of Hasidic/Mexican-American/Black neighborhoods. This is one of the only places I can think of where my interaygay (term my girlfriend made up for our interracial gay relationship) coupledom can walk down the street and fit in and be us and maybe even see others like us and just breathe. Everybody is here. Everybody is making. For better or worse, challenged, challenging, we’re in motion.